Spare Parts

Let’s get physical. Sure, our bodies are miraculous things, but do we really need an appendix or tonsils? And does body hair have any function? The answers might surprise you as we conduct this body check


We’d be goners if vital organs such as the liver or heart quit on us. But other body parts aren’t essential; in fact, some of them seem to do little more than take up space. In our inventory of the “body shop,” we reveal which parts you might want to keep, and which are just excess baggage. We solicited commentary from Dr. Anthony Youn, a plastic surgeon operating out of Beaumont Hospital, Troy.

// Appendix. Eons ago, when early man noshed on leaves and other fibrous plants, the appendix helped to break down cellulose. But now it’s just a vestigial body part — useful in one era, but not in modern times. In fact, anyone who’s suffered from appendicitis knows the appendix does more harm than good. “Today, the only purpose of the appendix is to get you sick, and to make general surgeons a few extra dollars,” Youn says. “There is no purpose to it, and that’s why it’s completely safe to have it removed. Some people actually have it removed even it it’s not bothering them, to prevent problems in the future.”

// Gallbladder. Some folks live fine without it, but the gallbladder does have an important function: to store and secrete excess bile to help digest fats. “People who usually have gallbladder attacks have issues relating to the amount of fat they eat,” Youn says. “Quite often, people will get an attack after they eat, say, a Big Mac and fries.” After the gallbladder is excised, “The bile isn’t stored, and you can’t secrete a lot of it at a time, so patients are usually advised to limit their fat intake.”

// Sinuses. They make the air we breathe moist, but sinus infections make many people miserable. Wouldn’t we be better off without them? Not so fast, Youn says. “One of the main functions of the sinuses is to protect the brain,” he says. “They protect the more integral structures of the brain from getting damaged during trauma. It’s like an empty space that will absorb stress.”

// Body hair. Some think it’s just a useless remnant left over from our distant gorilla relatives. But the eyebrows prevent salty perspiration from stinging our eyes. And, Youn says, “Nose hair helps filter out dirt particles before they get to the lungs.” But the hirsute benefits don’t stop there. “Our colleagues in OB-GYN are seeing quite a few more infections in the private areas because of the trend for Brazilian bikini waxes. Hair functions to clean out bacteria and other types of things that can make people sick,” he says. So think twice before going for that skinned-rabbit look. “From a health perspective, getting rid of the hair on your body doesn’t do you a favor, except if you’re Michael Phelps,” Youn says.

// Men’s nipples. A recent book called Why Do Men Have Nipples? made a lot of people wonder anew why men are endowed with them. However, there’s documentation that men, who make prolactin, can also produce breast milk if the nipple is stimulated. “Men do have actual breast tissue, and it is conceivable that the tissue could produce a milk-like substance,” Youn says, “But it’s very different from women because a lot of it is related to hormones, so we don’t secrete quite the same thing.” But that doesn’t stop some “milkmen” from nursing. Just go to YouTube and type in “breastfeeding men.”

// Wisdom teeth. Way back when, they aided in grinding food, but these “third molars” are like third wheels. “Nowadays, people don’t need their teeth anyway because the dentures are so good,” Youn quips.

// Muscles. There are muscles in the ears that enable some people to twitch them like rabbits, but unless you want to do a Bugs Bunny impersonation, the muscles perform no function. There’s also a muscle in the forearm, the plantaris, that some people have, but it, too, is useless. “I have one [plantaris] in one arm, but not in the other,” Youn says. “Some people have the muscle and others don’t, but we don’t see any actual difference in function between those who have it and those who don’t.”

// Coccyx, or tailbone. It could be the vestige of a tail, but it serves no purpose other than causing a lot of pain when we land on it. “It really does not function to do much, except possibly, like the sinuses, it’s something that will absorb stress if you have an injury,” Youn says.

// Tonsils. A generation or so ago, tonsillectomies for children were fairly common, followed by a soothing ice-cream diet for the tonsil-less kid. If they were enlarged, tonsils were often removed. But doctors aren’t so gung-ho these days to take them out unless it’s absolutely necessary. Although they can get abscessed and cause respiratory obstruction, tonsils can actually help prevent infection.

// Extra rib. Some people have this “13th rib,” but it isn’t unlucky, just useless.

// Spleen. It purifies the blood, getting rid of old, useless red-blood cells and also fights against infection. Although people can live without the spleen, those who are missing one are more prone to bacterial infections.

// Double organs. Because kidneys and lungs are vital, it seems like nature’s way of giving us a backup or second chance if one has to be removed. But don’t get too comfortable. “The body in general is kind of a paired structure,” Youn says, “but even people who have a lung removed, for instance, don’t necessarily function as well as one who has both.”

// Intestines. Adults have up to 28 feet of them, so what’s a few missing feet? People with Crohn’s disease often have their intestines snipped without deleterious effects.

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